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Paul Sweeney: How many lives could we have saved six years ago?

SIX years ago, Scotland’s then Lord Advocate, James Wolffe KC, refused to back plans for the establishment of an overdose prevention centre pilot in Glasgow.


This week, despite operating under the same laws and guidance, the current Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, has given the green light to the plans.


Her announcement marks the conclusion of a long-running campaign by stalwarts like Peter Krykant who have risked their livelihoods to see these lifesaving interventions come to pass.


I first met Peter during a public meeting about the drug death crisis in Possilpark in 2019.


Together, in the absence of an official pilot, and in the teeth of opposition from the authorities we, alongside a handful of committed volunteers, resolved to cut through the impasse and set up an unofficial overdose prevention pilot in Glasgow to prove that it could be done.


Over the course of a year, with no official support or funding beyond crowdfunded donations and operating sporadic part-time hours, we supervised 894 injections and reversed nine overdoses, saving eight lives of people who would have otherwise perished in a filthy alleyway off Glasgow’s Trongate.


Together we proved that this concept works, together we proved that they save lives, and perhaps most importantly, together we proved that these vital interventions can be established without the permission of the Home Office.


That simple fact is what makes the announcement by the current Lord Advocate so bittersweet.


I cannot fathom how this has taken so long, how without a change to the law, two Lord Advocates can hold such contrasting views, and how we have squandered so many lives in the six years of legal and regulatory stalemate.


In the past six years, 7127 people across Scotland have died from an entirely preventable drug-related death.


Overdose prevention centres would not have saved all of them, only a fool would make that claim but the reality is that they would have saved some.


I have heard countless platitudes in recent years about one death being one too many, but where was the action to counter those deaths when it was needed most?t


Instead of action, we were treated to wrangling. A constant barrage of apportioned blame and constitutional grievance while some of the most vulnerable people in our society fell victim to entirely preventable overdoses.


Each of them left behind a family, friends and loved ones who will be forced to pick up the pieces and deal with the trauma that their passing leaves behind. For that, decision-makers in this country should hang their heads in shame.


To be unequivocally clear, no one is saying that overdose prevention centres are a silver bullet. At their most basic they are a safety net, one that literally brings people back to life.


However, without wraparound welfare, recovery and addiction services, they will fail in the long term.


The drug policy landscape is cluttered with competing voices and priorities, but the fact of the matter is we will need harm reduction measures to complement recovery and addiction services, and vice versa.


In my experience, those who are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, trauma and addiction don’t care for the political games that are often played with their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They care about whether their lives are a priority, a simple equation that cuts to the very heart of the issue at hand.


Because for too long, people suffering with trauma and addiction feel they have been dispensable, that their lives don’t matter as much as those from better social and economic backgrounds.


They perceive those of us in positions of power as being aloof and devoid of compassion or empathy for the plight they endure, and they fear we are more interested in point scoring than solving the root causes of the problem.


On the evidence of the past six years, who could really argue with that rationale? Are we really going to say that if 7127 people from well-to-do families had died from entirely preventable causes, the system would not have kicked into overdrive and sorted it as a matter of priority?


If the previous six years, combined with the decision of the Lord Advocate this week, have taught us anything it is that those who should have been focused on solving this crisis have done anything but.


We have had targets, reports and statements of intent but very little action or effective outputs – warm words aplenty but no solutions – and taskforces that acted as nothing more than talking shops.


Finally, we have had a breakthrough but it’s a breakthrough that should and could have been reached six years ago when an overdose prevention pilot was first proposed in Glasgow.


The temptation to celebrate is hard to resist, but rather than being a cause for celebration, it seems more appropriate to use this announcement as a moment of reflection.


A moment to reflect on what could have been if the minds of decision-makers had been focused on fixing the crisis in our communities rather than using that same crisis to point score.


I have nothing but admiration for everyone who has made this possible and who have been at the frontier of the fight to eradicate drug deaths from our communities. Each and every one of them are the very best of us.


You can read my column on the Glasgow Times website here: Paul Sweeney: How many lives could we have saved six years ago? | Glasgow Times


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